Gerry Dulac: Steelers are sending three-headed monster after QBs this season
The Steelers believed they had the best outside linebacker tandem in the NFL the past two seasons with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Now they think they might have the best trio of outside edge rushers in the league.
And that's because of the addition of Melvin Ingram.
That was especially evident in Sunday's 23-16 road victory against the Buffalo Bills when Watt, Ingram and Alex Highsmith repeatedly rotated without any drop-off in performance.
Watt, of course, was his usual disruptive self, despite playing for the first time since the end of last season. But Ingram looked like the player who was a three-time Pro Bowl selection with the Los Angeles Chargers. And Highsmith continued to do what he did in the preseason — show he is a player on the rise in just his second season.
"The three-man rotation we have with Alex and Melvin is something that's going to really be special," Watt said.
Three days after signing the largest contract ever given a Steelers player, Watt looked as though he was worth every penny against the Bills, playing 69 of the 85 defensive snaps (81%). He had two sacks, five quarterback hurries, drew three holding penalties and forced a fumble.
Ingram didn't have the same gaudy statistics — he had three quarterback pressures, one tackle for loss and deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage — but he spent a lot of his 54 snaps time going after Bills quarterback Josh Allen from both sides of the line of scrimmage.
"We had something like that last year with Bud, Alex and T.J.," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "To replicate that with a guy like Melvin Ingram, we're pretty lucky. We don't take that for granted."
Ingram's sack production declined the past three seasons with the Chargers, mostly because of knee injuries. The Steelers are hoping that limiting his snaps will allow him to be more like the player he was from 2015-2017, when he had 29 sacks, even at age 32.
But he showed against the Bills that rotating him with Watt and Highsmith could give the Steelers the best trio of outside edge rushers in the league. Highsmith played 46 snaps against the Bills.
"We're a very unselfish group and that's why I'm looking forward to playing with both of them," Watt said.
'Full 60 minutes'
When the Steelers had no plans to bring back slot cornerback Mike Hilton after the 2020 season, they re-signed Cam Sutton to a two-year, $9 million contract.
A week after they signed Sutton, the Steelers released starting cornerback Steven Nelson because of salary-cap reasons and made Sutton the starter opposite veteran Joe Haden.
All Sutton did was never come off the field and perform both roles impressively against the Bills.
He had two tackles behind the line of scrimmage — something at which Hilton excelled — and he had two passes defensed in coverage. His biggest play was snuffing out a lateral pass to running back Matt Breida on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter, leading to the Steelers' go-ahead touchdown.
"We did a good job on our end of communicating, lining up, getting after everybody on their side of the ball," Sutton said. "We just played a full 60 minutes. I'm just really proud of our guys all around, all three levels. Young guys and old. We've got a lot of veteran guys, we've got a lot of young guys who played today and got some reps. I was really excited to see those guys going out there competing and for us to come out with the win — a big win."
Tale of two halves
Lost in the apathy of the performance of the offense in the first half was the ability to bounce back and score on all four possessions in the second half.
The Steelers had 13 of their 16 first downs, 187 of their 252 total yards and all 23 points after halftime. Rookie Pressley Harvin III, who punted five times in the first half (and not very impressively), did not have to punt in the second half.
"I think guys just settling in," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, explaining the difference. "We had a lot of first-timers out there. And that's a hostile place. Those fans are awesome. They were loud. It was very, very loud. Pat [Freiermuth] grabbed me afterwards like, 'Holy cow, it's loud out there.' I said, 'Yeah, welcome to the NFL.'
"I hate to use a Coach Tomlin-ism, but they didn't blink. They stood up in the face of not playing well early. We didn't make the big mistake, either. That was huge. We didn't make a big mistake early. We didn't do what we wanted to do, but we didn't turn the ball over. We didn't do anything catastrophic."